Friday, 31 August 2007

Costa Del Kao San

I had a great time in Vang Vieng, but after a few days there it was starting to get a bit like Spanish beach meets Bangkok traveller gheto, with a fair bit of Ballyfermot and Tel Aviv thrown in. Not all bad, but when the bar started playing "oh ah up the ra" I reckoned it was time to move on. I had intended to do another days tubing but it was chucking it down so I gave it a miss. So I hoped on the "VIP" bus up to Luang Prabang. The road trip was lovely, and although the thought of a bandit attach did cross my mind (this is the road where there has been some activity recently), its was far more likely the bus would come a cropper on all the torturous mountain hairpin bends. But the views were excellent most of the way and the trip passed really quickly.

The town itself is World Heritage listed and is full of lovely old buildings, some fine wats and nice surrounding countryside. And being at the confluence of two rivers, it gets some nice breezes to temper the heat of the day.
Mostly I've been just wandering about town, climbing the hill for nice views and visiting the odd temple.
I also spent a bit of time helping out a couple of kids at the guesthouse who were getting private tuition from a tutor there, which was really nice. The first day they really struggled to understand me, but by yesterday they had improved a lot - I guess a falang accent takes a bit of getting used to.

I met up again with Christian and the girls, and also with Mike and Emelia who I had played pool with a lot in Vang Viene.
The girls headed on the slow boat to Thailand today, so the rest of us spent the day at a really nice waterfall with a lovely swimming area. I even managed to hike to the top and peer over the torrent of water, which involved lots of carefully placed footsteps on slippery rocks. Laos safety isn't exactly first world:)

Saturday, 25 August 2007

Its like your always stuck in second gear

I'm not sure how the whole thing started, but here in Vang Vieng its like some sort of Friends groundhog day. Almost all the resturants on the main street are constantly showing reruns of the fairly annoying (esp in the latter years) show and everyone seems to be watching them. Its all very strange. Especially when there are much better things to do. The scenery here is simply stunning, among the best I've seen in SE Asia, loads of limestone karsts, caves and pretty little villages. It looks a bit like what I expect Gullin to be like in China. Its a great place to zip around on motorbikes, the traffic is light so you can just cruise slowly checking out the scenery.

And then theres the fabled tubing, a bit of a Laos institution. Your taken upriver a few Ks and launch onto a fairly fast flowing river in a big rubber tube. But within seconds you arrive at the first "bar" where if your not inclined to approach, a kid swims out and helps you in. A beer Lao later and a few tricks performed on the trapeze wire (you get better with each bar) and your on to the next stop. I went with Karin and Caroline from Austria, Corrina from Switzerland and Christian, another Austrian, and we met a bunch of people on the way, expecially during the marathon volleyball session during which I sustained a badly bruised toe and a nice lump after a clash of heads. It was all tremondous fun. Finishing the trip floating down on the river under an almost full moon while being pleasantly sozzled was specially memorable, we had no idea where the end was until we heard splashing in the water and an army of kids descended on us to haul us out for tips.

I arrived here a few days ago having eventually completed all my Oz visa stuff in Vientiene. I had been there so long I recognised most people - the Ozzie girl researching the next edition of the footprints guide, the (very cute) Italian photographer doing an article on Mekong village life, the crazy Laos woman who sits at peoples table and grabs their beer when there not looking, the german guy who seemed to be doing an impersionation of the minisry of silly walks. And I'm sure people noticed the Irish guy running around with a stack of papers in a plastic compression bag going to medical clinics, hospitals, all kinds of ministerial offices, post offices, stationary shops, internet cafes and various embassies. It was an interesting 9 days or so.

Sunday, 19 August 2007

Change of pace

I knew Laos would be a pretty easy going place, but after crossing the border from Vietnam it almost feels like another world. If they were any more laid back, they would be horizontal. I guess the old saying about Indochina might sum it up well - the Vietnamese plant the rice, the Khymers watch it grow and the Lao listen to it grow. It's taken a while to get used to walking around without being offered all kinds of things by everyone, especially tuk tuks.

Though now that I'm in the bustling metropolis of Vientiane, they are a little more commercial minded .. want tuk tuk? want ganja? want girl? want boy? But even here, the pace is really relaxed and it certainly doesn't feel like a capital city. Its a nice town to just wander around, with a number of nice Wats and buildings, and a pleasant riverfront area along the Mekong with more views of Thailand.
Since I've arrived in Laos, each town I've stayed has had views across to Thai towns, tempting me with the delicious food just out of reach as I dont have a multiple entry visa. Still, the Laos food is pretty good, not too dissimilar to Thai really. The other night I had a Papaya salad which was quite possibly the spiciest thing I have ever eaten.

After a fairly easy border crossing last week (just a minor bribe required, made smaller with a little good natured haggling) I arrived in the town of Savannakhet.
It's a really nice little place, with some nice colonial buildings and has the nicest of the riverside settings with a string of cool little eateries one after another where beer Lao and ice goes well with the little cook yourself seafood soups. It even had a nightclub, though it stuck to the government enforced 11:30 closing time, and a cute little dinosaur museum. But mostly it was walking around, talking to the locals and watching the kids play that passed the time. A nice intro to Laos.

Travel in Laos requires a bit more effort than the other south east Asian countries, overloaded public buses with all kinds of freight are the norm, and some of the food offered by the vendors is less then tempting - roast cricket anyone?
It actually doesn't taste as bad as it looks. Still, its a good idea to stock up on some nice rambutans for the journeys. And those little plastic seats in the aisles aren't too good on your bum after 5 hours or so. But its all part of the fun.

Next stop was Tha Khaek, nowhere near as charming in itself, but with lovely limestone karst scenery and pretty villages in the surrounding countryside. I hired a Motorbike with Andrea, an Italian guy who was on the bus down, and it was a challenge trying to find the various points of interest with a sketchy map and no English signs.

We eventually found 2 out of the 3 caves we were searching for, and they were both pretty cool, but the best fun was when we ran out of petrol and had to enlist the service of the village kids to rescue us.
Next day Andrea and I headed off to Vientiane, both nursing severe hangovers, and Andrea was non too plussed when he saw we would be on the tiny kids plastic chairs that are employed as extra seats on the local buses. Having taken our seats, we were then subjected to people clambering over us constantly which I found very amusing, but I could here Andrea cursing constantly in Italian. Lucky it was only a 6 hour trip.

Before leaving Vietnam I spent a day in the DMZ close to Dong Ha town visiting the Vinh Moc tunnels and a couple of the US fire sites from the war. It was pretty amazing to see the tunnels where people had lived for years (17 kids were born in them) often for days without seing daylight. Even the big B-52 shells didnt have much of an impact on the network of tunnels.

So still in Vientiane, will need to stay here a bit more in order to get my stuff together for the Oz visa as they are asking for medicals and police checks and all sorts of nonsense. Today all government stuff is closed, so checked out Vientiane's answer to the Arc De Triumph .
The weather has heated up a notch, but its still pretty pleasant so I cant complain too much. And theres always Beer Lao to cool off.

Friday, 10 August 2007

Turn left for Laos

Circumstances (heavy rain disrupting the train line, and limited time left on my Nam Visa) have convinced me to postpone my northern migratrion and instead I'm going to head east to Laos. So tomorrow it's off to the town of Dong Ha, which I'm intrigued to see after the review in The Book "Today, there is no conceivable reason to visit".
My last night in Hoi An was spent playing pool and trying not to drink whiskey shots with Charlie (quite an appropriate name for this locale) from Glasgow, who had been on my tour to My Son. We also had some fantastic Vietnamese food at Bale Well - theres no menu, they just keep bringing you loads of stuff which they make into something like spring rolls till you cant eat any more. Fantastic. Next day, I managed to make the afternoon bus up to Hue. It's another colonial city with much of the older parts preserved, but unlike Hoi An, where most of the buildings are occupied by functioning vendors, its more divided into the "real" town and the museum bit that you just visit. The two are seperated by the river, the Citadel and a moat. Much of the old Citadel walls remain, and although a lot of the town was flattened during the Tet offensive, Hue's designation as a world heritage site has meant the restoration of many of the buildings. It's nice to stroll around, but even better explored on a claped out bike, as this way you are pretty much pleasantly immune to the constant attention of Cyclo/Moto drivers, postcard sellers and tour vendors.

On the bus to Hue I met up with Simon and Frederic, two German guys who I had met before on the way to Dalat (we had met while observing an unfortunate Swiss guy's repeated fainting through severe diarahoe induced dehydration) and Jill from Canadia, and we hung around for much of the time in Hue, unified in our defense against the ubiquitous cyclo drivers. To escape the streets, we hired a local boat for a short trip on the somewhat inappropriately named perfume river - judging from the "crew" I'd say there pretty bored by the whole experience.

Monday, 6 August 2007

Reunification Express

Having had more than my fill of buses for a bit, I've arrived in Hoi An by the sweetly named Reunification Express train from Nha Trang. It was all very pleasant and comfortable, and although the scenery was pretty I slept much of the 9 hours. Probably cause I had ended up out too late once again in Nha Trang. While awake, I made my best attempts to commuicate with the Vietnamese family sharing my cabin, their english being only marginally better than what i could manage to utter using the back of the guidebook's phrases. From what I could make out, the conversation was mostly about if I was married or not, and if their daughter was pretty...
I actually had to backtrack a wee bit as the train arrived in Danang, so it was a motorbike taxi back the 30k or so, during which the driver spent most of the time trying to sell me a multi day tour. As consolation for not taking it, I allowed him to take me to his chosen hotel, which is actually really nice with a pool and lovely rooms.

Nha Trang hadnt been a bad spot, it's the main beach resort in Vietnam but it's not quite (yet anyway) the costa del sol, and in fact theres far more locals on the beach than westerners. Crossing the road here was also a bit more relaxed then Saigon, but still good fun. It's also Vietnam's main diving spot, and I spent a couple of days exploring the underwater scenery, which included one really spectacular swin through cave complete with scores of lovely fish. The dives were notable for the absence of any really big fish, the consequence of pretty heavy fishing by the locals, which still continues despite the areas status as a protected marine park.
Nha Trang also had a fair share of lively bars which keep going till dawn. Though the moto drivers are particularly funny with the prices they try to charge drunken tourists at this time of night/morning. Even the little old baguette ladies quadruple their daytime prices.

Before Nha Trang I visited the hill station of Dalat. It's a funny sort of place, with over the top kitsch statues and the like at every turn, and seems to attract far more Vietnamese than foreigners. Still the town and the area around is a nice enough place to spend a couple of days, not least because of the cool weather. I employed one of the local "easy riders" to show me around, and it was good enough fun, though a bit overpriced compared to others I've used - the curse of getting a really good write up in The Book.
I ended up renting my own motorbike to see some of the other sites.
One of the more weird attractions was a Gaudi like guesthouse called crazy house locally, which would make a cool spot to stay when it's properly open.

The old town of Hoi An is a really pretty spot, the one Asian town that really has retained it's colonial buildings, which are mostly beautifully resored. An amazing number are tailors, it seems that this is The spot in Asia to get your new suits. The much touted temples of My Son were a bit of a let down, but then again I guess after Angkor I'm a bit spoiled.

The river and beach area made for nice cruising on a rented bike.
Hoi An also boasts a number of nice little local bars, where you can drink the local draught beer for the pricely sum of 10p. Shame that I was almost the only one in there - I could see that everyone was milling into the bigger place next door - where you could get crappy draught fosters for 12 times the price. Oh but wait, that place is in The Book.